By Martin Plaut -Jan 17, 2021

Source: Daily Despatch

Has the time come to look upon those who fought the British in the same way as we look upon those who resisted apartheid? Should we see the Boer commandos as fighters for the freedom of their people, just as we look upon those members of the African National Congress, Pan Africanist Congress, and the African Resistance Movement?

When I was growing up in the 1960s my school history books fed me an endless diet of the heroic Boer fighter, resisting the British. Since I was English-speaking, this seemed like an accusation against me personally, and I was resentful. Then the true horrors of apartheid dawned on me and I saw Afrikaners in a different light. I remember them being derided by pupils as ‘ropes’ in our school playground: thick, hairy and twisted.

As the years went by these perceptions became baked into my consciousness. Today I see these perceptions as the racism that they always were. It seems to me that it’s time for a more balanced re-assessment.

“Our diminutive army”

It is worth beginning by stating the obvious: that in resisting the British the two Boer republics displayed an extraordinary audacity. They were taking on the largest empire the world has ever known. The Boers had at their disposal just 66 667 troops. This number included some 10 000 black servants and (occasionally) fighters – the ‘agterryers’ – and a further 2 000 foreign volunteers. This force confronted a British army some 500 000 strong. The British troops were not just drawn from the UK, but from across the Empire – including Canadian, Australian, and Indian soldiers. They also recruited black South Africans – mostly as labourers, but sometimes as fighters.

The Boers were well armed, with modern rifles and artillery that was superior to the weapons provided for their opponents. They were crack shots and knew the terrain, but they were hopelessly outnumbered. After initial Boer successes, the British regrouped and captured Pretoria on the 5th of June 1900. Lord Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner, wrote jubilantly to a friend, declaring the war was over. “I have saved the British position in South Africa and have knocked the bottom out of the great Afrikaner nation forever and ever.”  He could hardly have been more wrong.  

A “Stop the war” leaflet distributed in Britain by the British left.

The Boers turned to guerrilla warfare. Boer commandos fanned out across the open veld, attacking British lines of communication. In retaliation, the British burnt their farms to the ground. In the Orange Free State alone, 600 farms were destroyed within the first six months of the commencement of these operations in June 1900.

The scenes were heart-breaking. Captain Phillips of Rimington’s Guides, a unit recruited from English-speaking South Africans, provided a moving description of what took place.

“The worst moment is when you first come to the house. The people thought we had called for refreshments, and one of the women went to get milk. Then we had to tell them that we had come to burn the place down. I simply didn’t know which way to look…At another farm a small girl interrupted her preparation for departure to play indignantly their national anthem at us on an old piano. We were carting the people off. It was raining hard and blowing – a miserable, hurried home-leaving; ransacked house, muddy soldiers, a distracted mother saving one or two trifles and pushing along her children to the ox wagon, and this poor wretch in the midst of it all pulling herself together to strum a final defiance…We can’t exterminate the Dutch or seriously reduce their numbers. We can do enough to make hatred of English and thirst for revenge the first duty of every Dutchman, and we can’t effectively reduce the numbers of men who will carry that duty out. Of course it is not a question of the war only. It is a question of governing the country afterwards.”

Having destroyed their homes the British consigned Boer women and children to concentration camps, in which they languished. By the time the war ended these notorious camps housed 154 000 Afrikaners, together with their African servants who had been interned with them. The camps became a byword for oppression and the inmates died in their thousands.

Russian nurses and doctors who volunteered to work with the Boers

The British conducted vast sweeps of the country, pinning the Boer commandos into pockets of territory. After more than two years of war most Boer fighters were exhausted. Many became dispirited. Rebels gradually drifted away from their commandos and some went over to the British. By the end of the war, 5 000 Boers had joined the British (more than a quarter of the Afrikaners then in the field) and Boer leaders feared that their forces might surrender en masse.

By May 1902 it was all over. Peace was signed in Vereeniging, but (and this is important) it was a treaty, not a surrender. The Boers were vastly outnumbered, had few horses and little ammunition or food, but they did not consider themselves broken. This description by Deneys Reitz (who rode at Jan Smuts’s side during their attacks deep behind British lines) of the conditions of the men, conveys their situation:

“…nothing could have proved more clearly how nearly the Boer cause was spent than these starving, ragged men clad in skins or sacking, their bodies covered in sores, from lack of salt or food, and their appearance was a great shock to us, who came from the better-conditioned forces in the Cape. Their spirit was undaunted, but they had reached the limit of physical endurance, and we realised that, if these haggard, emaciated men were the pick of the Transvaal Commandos, then the war must be irretrievably lost.”

Despite the terrible condition of the men, it was only with difficulty that Smuts and Botha persuaded them to end the war. Some preferred exile to surrender. The suffering in the concentration camps was horrific, yet the women remained, to the end, the fiercest supporters of a continuation of the war. A British visitor noted: “It was the vrouw who kept the war going on so long. It was in her heart that patriotism flamed into an all-consuming heat, forgiving nothing and forgetting nothing.”

A cartoon from Punch – The war nearly bankrupted Britain.

In the end it was a hopeless cause. Only an uprising by Cape and Natal Afrikaners might have swung the war in their favour, but it never came. General Christiaan de Wet maintained that victory was never on the cards. “We knew, I need scarcely say, that humanly speaking ultimate victory for us was out of the question – that had been clear from the very beginning. For how could our diminutive army hope to stand against the overwhelming numbers at the enemy’s command.”

This was an extraordinarily brave rebellion against overwhelming odds. The suffering they endured was immense. We should remember them as the patriots that they were. We know that the pain and bitterness of the Boer war unleashed forces that finally resulted in apartheid. That cannot be denied. But who holds the fighters for MK or APLA in any less esteem because of the Aids denialism of Mbeki or state capture under Jacob Zuma?

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR